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Prog Lipid Res. 2001 Jul;40(4):299-324.

Do sterols reduce proton and sodium leaks through lipid bilayers?

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Department of Chemistry, City College of the City University of New York and Biochemistry, City University of New York Medical School, New York, NY 10031, USA.


Proton and/or sodium electrochemical gradients are critical to energy handling at the plasma membranes of all living cells. Sodium gradients are used for animal plasma membranes, all other living organisms use proton gradients. These chemical and electrical gradients are either created by a cation pumping ATPase or are created by photons or redox, used to make ATP. It has been established that both hydrogen and sodium ions leak through lipid bilayers at approximately the same rate at the concentration they occur in living organisms. Although the gradients are achieved by pumping the cations out of the cell, the plasma membrane potential enhances the leakage rate of these cations into the cell because of the orientation of the potential. This review proposes that cells use certain lipids to inhibit cation leakage through the membrane bilayers. It assumes that Na(+) leaks through the bilayer by a defect mechanism. For Na(+) leakage in animal plasma membranes, the evidence suggests that cholesterol is a key inhibitor of Na(+) leakage. Here I put forth a novel mechanism for proton leakage through lipid bilayers. The mechanism assumes water forms protonated and deprotonated clusters in the lipid bilayer. The model suggests how two features of lipid structures may inhibit H(+) leakage. One feature is the fused ring structure of sterols, hopanoids and tetrahymenol which extrude water and therefore clusters from the bilayer. The second feature is lipid structures that crowd the center of the bilayer with hydrocarbon. This can be accomplished either by separating the two monolayers with hydrocarbons such as isoprenes or isopranes in the bilayer's cleavage plane or by branching the lipid chains in the center of the bilayers with hydrocarbon. The natural distribution of lipids that contain these features are examined. Data in the literature shows that plasma membranes exposed to extreme concentrations of cations are particularly rich in the lipids containing the predicted qualities. Prokaryote plasma membranes that reside in extreme acids (acidophiles) contain both hopanoids and iso/anteiso- terminal lipid branching. Plasma membranes that reside in extreme base (alkaliphiles) contain both squalene and iso/anteiso- lipids. The mole fraction of squalene in alkaliphile bilayers increases, as they are cultured at higher pH. In eukaryotes, cation leak inhibition is here attributed to sterols and certain isoprenes, dolichol for lysosomes and peroxysomes, ubiquinone for these in addition to mitochondrion, and plastoquinone for the chloroplast. Phytosterols differ from cholesterol because they contain methyl and ethyl branches on the side chain. The proposal provides a structure-function rationale for distinguishing the structures of the phytosterols as inhibitors of proton leaks from that of cholesterol which is proposed to inhibit leaks of Na(+). The most extensively studied of sterols, cholesterol, occurs only in animal cells where there is a sodium gradient across the plasma membrane. In mammals, nearly 100 proteins participate in cholesterol's biosynthetic and degradation pathway, its regulatory mechanisms and cell-delivery system. Although a fat, cholesterol yields no energy on degradation. Experiments have shown that it reduces Na(+) and K(+) leakage through lipid bilayers to approximately one third of bilayers that lack the sterol. If sterols significantly inhibit cation leakage through the lipids of the plasma membrane, then the general role of all sterols is to save metabolic ATP energy, which is the penalty for cation leaks into the cytosol. The regulation of cholesterol's appearance in the plasma membrane and the evolution of sterols is discussed in light of this proposed role.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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